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Reality check for career-children balancing act

Cover by Phillip Toledano

During a class break last spring, several female graduate students chatted about freezing their unfertilized eggs and putting them in storage for use if they have trouble conceiving years hence. The conversation was sparked by a Newsweek/Daily Beast article about “vitrification” technology in which journalist Diane Sawyer advised her hard-charging staffers to visit a fertility clinic to freeze their eggs.

Sawyer isn’t alone in her suggestion; according to the article, some young women are told by their parents, “I know you want to work, but I want grandkids someday.”

My female graduate students, many in their mid to late 20s, are well aware that pursuing a journalism career in a 24-hour news cycle world doesn’t leave them much time to have babies before 40, let alone find a mate. These young women—and thousands of other motivated college grads—follow a prescribed path: pursue a career for a decade or so after college, marry at age 30-35, and then have children before 40. They jump through all these hoops only to find a new set of challenges: juggling children and career.

Sound familiar? Many baby boomers struggled with the same issues. Has anything changed? Apparently not according to “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” an Atlantic magazine cover article which attracted more than 450,000 hits and 75,000 Facebook likes, a record for the magazine. In the piece, Anne-Marie Slaughter, 53, a high-ranking State Department official, described her struggle to balance a demanding job with needs of two teenage sons who lived with their father, a Princeton University professor, while she stayed in Washington, D.C., going home on weekends. Her husband, who she describes as a hero, willingly cared for the sons. After a two-year leave from Princeton, Ms. Slaughter, also a professor, had to decide whether to commit for a longer period to the federal post. She declined and returned home and to her much less stressful teaching position. Her reason: “because of my desire to be with my family and my conclusion that juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible.”

The Washington experience was an eye opener for Ms. Slaughter. Even as both a professor and dean, she had controlled her schedule. Not so in the 18-hour work days of Washington, and only then did she realize the inherent flaw in the mantra she previously preached to young women: “Yes, you can have it all, you just have to work at it.”

So was her advice—based on her ivory tower experience—wrong? In an interview with Beth Harpaz of the Associated Press, Ms. Slaughter said,

I don’t think it was a lie, but I think the women coming up are facing new circumstances where there are all these opportunities, opportunities men have always had, where they can try to get tenure, or try to be a partner at a firm. They’re also seeing so many women in my generation who had children late and many of us had all sorts of fertility problems. They say, ‘I don’t want that but I want to have children. How on earth am I going to get established in my career?”

That’s the question facing our adult daughters, and to some extent, our sons too, although as Ms. Slaughter points out, balancing career and children continues to be a women’s issue even for Gen Y. So what do we tell our daughters when they question us about the timing of career and family and achieving the elusive balance? What can we say so they don’t feel like failures—either as mothers or as workers—for making choices that favor one over the other?

There are no one-size-fits-all answers. The career-family dilemma began as we baby boomers graduated college and found new opportunities for women. The work-family struggle was exacerbated as more and more doors opened. Gen X and then Gen Y women went higher and faster in careers, delayed marriage and children, pushing to a record high the average age for first marriage and births in the U.S.  So many opportunities, so many glass ceilings shattered, yet the biological clock kept ticking at the same pace.

The subject long perplexed me on a professional and personal level. So, with Loretta Kaufman, I wrote two books about mothers and work. “And What Do You Do?” proposed taking a career timeout, and “Going Back to Work” advised moms on how to jump start their careers.

One of the key points of our books (now echoed by Ms. Slaughter) is that because of changes in life expectancy and the economy, women can work into their mid-60s and beyond. So a mother who takes a career “off-ramp” in her 30s to spend more time at home can get back on the career expressway in her 40s and still have two decades plus of work ahead to make her mark. Our mantra: “You can have it all, just not all at the same time.”

Many women disagreed with that game plan including Ms. Slaughter. However she now writes,

I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.

So what do we tell our daughters when they are struggling with daunting decisions about family and career, present and future? Of course, ultimately they need to find their own path, which depends on a variety of factors from income, to career (nurse or neurosurgeon), to the home front support of a spouse, and much more. We can console them not to feel like failures because they are not superwomen. We can tell them “been there, done that” (and survived) when they find themselves at work thinking about a sick toddler at home or at home with a sick toddler thinking about getting back to work!

Perhaps most important, although we have raised a generation of high achievers, we should not pressure our daughters with our hopes and dreams for them, either in their careers or their home life. We may wish for our daughter to be the first CEO in her field or for grandchildren while we can still run around. While we can silently pray (silently!), we also need to be a safe haven for them in this cultural storm. We can sit and listen, serve as a sounding board and offer suggestions, not solutions, and even lend a helping hand.

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